Leaders Who ‘protect the House’ Must Account for Abuse of Children

By Ted Slowik
Daily Southtown / Chicago Tribune
August 21, 2018

Pope Francis speaks during a Profession of Faith with the Bishops of the Italian Episcopal Conference in 2013 at St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. (Filippo Monteforte / Getty Images)

A defensive mindset known as “protect the house” often seems to take hold when an institution feels threatened.

Last week’s release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report helps show that no institution went to greater lengths to protect the house than the Roman Catholic Church in that state.

“The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal,’” the grand jurors wrote. “It’s like a playbook for concealing the truth.”

In the 16 years since The Boston Globe and other newspapers exposed the Catholic Church’s appalling cover-up of sex crimes committed against children, other institutions have faced criticism for protecting the house.

In 2012, former FBI Director Louis Freeh released a report that found former leaders of Penn State University showed “total and consistent disregard” for child sex abuse victims and tried to cover up assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys.

Earlier this year Michigan State University agreed to pay $500 million to settle lawsuits brought by 332 victims of Larry Nassar, a doctor and former professor who sexually abused hundreds of girls and young women.

Boy Scouts of America, Chicago Public Schools, protestant denominations and others have been subjects of civil lawsuits and press investigations that alleged institutions engaged in varying degrees of damage control instead of protecting children from sexual predators.

Many institutional leaders seem to instinctively react by protecting the house instead of fully cooperating with authorities when confronted with allegations of sexual abuse by a member of their ranks. Hiring a top-notch crisis communications firm often seems to take precedence over providing counseling to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

No institution seemingly has misplaced its values and priorities more than the Roman Catholic Church. The shocking, lurid findings of the Pennsylvania grand jury report need to be studied in the context of similar state-authorized investigations in Australia, Ireland, Chile and many other countries.

These investigations reveal a worldwide pattern of protect-the-house policies and practices. One can only conclude that the Vatican issued directives for how bishops across the globe should respond to reports of clerics sexually abusing children.

“We showed no care for the little ones,” Pope Francis said Monday in a statement responding to the Pennsylvania report. “We abandoned them.”

That sound bite is the most-quoted passage from the pope’s 2,085-word, “Letter to the People of God.” Francis goes on to hint at something deeper. He addresses why leaders make such horrible decisions when they seek to protect the house.

One does not become bishop of a Catholic diocese, president of a Big Ten university or head of another venerable institution if one is pre-disposed to protecting pedophiles. Why, then, do good leaders so often fail so miserably to protect children?

Francis wrote that Catholics need to stand in solidarity with those who were abused and stand up to root out abusers and those who protect them. In other words, Catholics need more whistleblowers.

“Such solidarity demands that we in turn condemn whatever endangers the integrity of any person,” Francis wrote. “A solidarity that summons us to fight all forms of corruption, especially spiritual corruption. The latter is a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centeredness.”

Some Catholic parishioners are directing their anger over the Pennsylvania report at church leadership. Some say Catholics should withhold donations until the church allows priests to marry, ordination of women or other changes that might address why so many priests sexually abused so many children.

The Roman Catholic Church is a private institution. It should be left up to Catholics to debate internally whatever reforms they think are needed.

It should be painfully clear that the Catholic Church — and every other institution, for that matter — cannot be trusted to police itself. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke told the Sun-Times that Illinois and every other state should convene a grand jury similar to Pennsylvania’s.

Burke is a devout Catholic who was interim chair of a 2002 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops study on nationwide clerical sexual abuse in the wake of the Boston Globe “Spotlight” investigation.

“It was happening in Chicago, but we had to rely on files the bishops were willing to give us — and we knew there had to be more, but we had no subpoena powers,” Burke told the Sun-Times. “We had no government authority.”

I asked representatives of the state’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, on Tuesday for her reaction to the Pennsylvania report. The representatives declined comment.

Madigan is retiring soon after four terms. I reached out to the two major-party nominees seeking to succeed her: Republican Erika Harold, of Urbana, and Democratic state Sen. Kwame Raoul, of Chicago.

“I respect Justice Burke’s perspective,” Raoul told me by phone Tuesday. “She previously served on an internal panel. It’s meaningful she’s calling for (a statewide grand jury).”

Illinois currently lacks the ability to impanel a statewide grand jury the way Pennsylvania did, Raoul said. The legislature would have to provide authority and resources to conduct a statewide investigation of ways to better protect children from sexual abusers within institutions, Raoul said.

“Any expansion of grand jury authority ought not to be limited to the Catholic Church,” he told me. He said as a parent who was raised Catholic, he found the Pennsylvania findings “clearly disturbing.”

A representative for Harold provided her response via email.

“I read portions of the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report and found the sexual abuse chronicled to be both heartbreaking and infuriating,” Harold wrote. “That the perpetrators were systematically protected and enabled to continue this pattern of abuse is unconscionable. I agree with Justice Burke’s call for the convening of a statewide grand jury.”

Like in Pennsylvania, an Illinois grand jury should detail the scope of sexual abuse discovered, efforts to conceal abuse or failures to report it to authorities, potential criminal charges that fall within the statute of limitations and recommendations for legislative reform, Harold wrote.

When former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was convicted of a financial crime related to payments made to a teen he allegedly sexually abused when he was a wrestling coach, Madigan and others called for Illinois to abolish the state’s statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions of people who sexually abuse children.

A statewide grand jury report for Illinois might provide additional evidence needed for legislators to get rid of the statute of limitations. Another legislative recommendation worth considering is tougher criminal penalties for institutional leaders who act to “protect the house” instead of protecting children.









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